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Niger: Saving lives with text messages

Niger is currently experiencing food crisis that threatens more than half of the country's 14 million people. The United Nations has called for urgent humanitarian action. One blogger for Concern US blogs, Amanda McClelland, reports about a program using text messages to distribute emergency cash to the most vulnerable women in 160 villages in the country.

A bit of background information:

Niger is on the brink of what will be a major catastrophe if the world does not act now. As part of Concern’s Emergency Response Team, I am no stranger to crises: that is why I was sent to Niger on January 10, just two days before the Haiti earthquake.

Millet is the crop that keeps most people alive here. The majority of the country’s population of 15.2 million live by farming or herding livestock—without rain, they do not earn enough income to get by or grow enough food to eat.

The rains last year were erratic, when they came at all. That caused widespread, massive crop failures and 60 percent of the country’s population is now facing hunger. Unless immediate action is taken, close to 378,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition.

The mobile cash transfer program involves a code, which is delivered via text message to each recipient, which they can redeem for cash at mobile dispensing agents operated by telecommunications service provider ZAIN. This is the first time this type of mobile cash transfer has been used in a French-speaking African country:

Concern has already launched a response, including an innovative program using mobile phone technology and text messages to distribute emergency cash to the most vulnerable women in 160 villages. Concern is also doing “manual” cash transfers as part of pioneering, side-by-side research to document the effectiveness of each method.

This is groundbreaking—the first time such mobile emergency cash transfers have ever been used in Niger, and the first time they have ever been used in a French-speaking African country. A code is delivered via text message to each recipient, which they can redeem for cash at mobile dispensing agents operated by telecommunications service provider ZAIN and their newly introduced cash transfer technology, ZAP.

The program involves developing an identification cards for each of the women for verification purposes:

Today, we distributed special identification cards for each of the 13,000 women who will benefit from our cash transfer program—they have no other form of official ID. (I will save the story of how we took 13 000 photos in remote villages for my next blog!). Each woman also received 20 000 cfa (approximately $42), which is enough for an average-size family to buy food for a month.

The women accepted the money and ID cards with smiles and thank you’s –but they seemed subdued, which worried me. This was supposed to be the difference between eating and not eating for the next month. My mind was racing: maybe the money was not enough, maybe we targeted the wrong people, maybe all the planning and days at that desk we got it wrong?

Here you can see the Niger's food crisis in pictures and an analysis from IRIN, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of the term “famine” and whether the food crisis in Niger is a famine. And if you are wondering why Niger is not making headlines despite the crisis, read our post titled, “The Republic of Niger ain't sexy enough for headlines.”

1 comment

  • Kari Barnum

    It is so easy to ignore crisis’ in countries other than our own. So much happens that people are never aware of until a movie is made about it! For example “Hotel Rwanda!” Most of us in US never know what as really happening til we saw it on the screen. Well, I now call Niger my home! I live in one of those small village, 800 miles from the capital city who is feeling the effects of the crop damages last year. I work at a hospital which has a pediatric CRENI unit (basically a Malnourished unit). We get the bad ones, the ones who are dying at alarming rates. Save the Children has come in and is working around the bush areas to help save many of the innocent who are dying of hunger. It is only going to get worse. I sent emails to my friends and family to sponsor 1 bag of rice, or millet at the price of $60.00. An amount I can spend easily an less important things! But one sack of rice can feed a family for a month. Trust me, when you see the 2 year old who is 12 pounds in person, in makes it much more heart wrenching then watching on a television commercial! The food crisis is REAL! People ARE DYING of HUNGER! Reality sucks sometimes!

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